What to look for in a reading program

The following article appeared on the Secular Home School site . It was posted as a discussion piece on their forum.. It was posted as a discussion piece to help others make a decision on choosing the reading program that was right for a homeschool environment.

With all the reading programs available, you would think that there needed to be a different one for each student. Just like shampoo, pharmaceuticals, and paper plates, they all claim to be effective.
Research from the last 20 years has shed light on vital elements to look for in an effective reading program. The methods used in this research can appropriately be called neuro-developmental, because they not only incorporate knowledge of how the brain acquires skill in general, but how language skill is acquired specifically. Here’s what you should look for (and what you should reasonably expect) when trying to make a decision:

  1. Look for programs that begin with pre-phonetic, spoken language skills: Research shows that reading difficulties most likely result from spoken-language skill deficits, which need to be remedied at the spoken-language level. Look for programs that will improve awareness of what the child sees, feels, and hears when making speech sounds, and integrate those features efficiently in the brain. Programs should also emphasize phonological processing skills (the ability to identify, order, and manipulate all 44 English language sounds), but be wary. Many programs have activities that may use phonological awareness (rhyming activities, identify the first sound activities). However, that’s not the same thing as building processing skills. Also, make sure the program strengthens these skills before emphasizing letter/sound association and phonics! Research also shows that proper instruction in these spoken language skills can prevent most young children who are first learning to read from experiencing future difficulties, even if they have dyslexia.
  2. Look for programs that move from simple to complex skills: You would think this one would be obvious, but we’ve seen programs that teach words that end in “-an, -en, -in, and -on” before introducing the letter “N”! Look for programs that move from simple to complex (single sounds before blends; one-syllable word structures before multi-syllable structures, etc.) with overlapping exercises that reinforce past concepts.
  3. Look for the principles of neuroplasticity: Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to create and reinforce new neural connections. If a child has difficulty reading, neural pathways need to be wired in a more efficient manner. To do that, you have to follow three basic principles:
    1. Frequency – Activities must be done often enough to actually build skill. Imagine trying to learn a foreign language, but only getting one class a week for 20 minutes. A reading program that says that two 20-minute sessions a week is enough is not being consistent with research. For optimal skill acquisition, practice should be done daily for at least 30-50 minutes.
    2. Intensity – What you are doing must require real focus and mental effort. Listening to audio of a person speaking another language while sitting in front of the television isn’t going to make you fluent, either. Look for a program that will be engaging, but also challenging.
    3. Specificity – This is where so many reading programs fall apart. The activities must actually target the skills needed or desired. In the case of struggling readers, if the skill deficits are primarily in multi-sensory awareness and phonological processing, the activities must specifically target those skills. Many people look for programs to be multi-sensory without much thought as to what skill the instruction is targeting. The result is programs that have children tapping their arms or tracing letters in glitter. These activities are engaging, but they don’t target the skills that most struggling readers lack. Activities must build the specific skills that will lead to fluency, particularly the skill of sounding out words.
  4. Ask to see EVIDENCE: Don’t settle for a program that simply has research to support it. If you’re seriously considering a reading program, ask a representative for evidence supporting the effectiveness of the program’s methods. The evidence should be scientific: from randomly selected participants, with results that have been peer-reviewed and published in reputable journals. This will dramatically reduce the number of programs to consider. Most programs just don’t have it.